Thursday, August 31, 2006

Albania avoids poll boycott, reaches election deal

TIRANA, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Albania's main parties reached an agreement on the framework of the next local government elections, avoiding the prospect of a boycott and nationwide protests by the opposition, officials said on Thursday.

The main opposition Socialist Party and its allies had threatened to boycott the elections unless voters were listed in a permanent register and the public television board and a media watchdog were balanced to reflect political weight.

Bodyguards had to contain opposition MPs in July when they threatened the speaker and took out their rage on the chamber's furniture, after the ruling Democrats approved a new Central Election Commission member in what they saw as a breach of accords.

The European Union urged both sides to engage in dialogue, reminding politicians they had a duty to step up work on the pre-membership Stabilisation and Association Agreeement (SAA) with the EU.

"Nobody lost from this deal; Albania won," Prime Minister Sali Berisha said after senior politicians signed the accord.

"Our conditions have been met," added opposition Socialist Party leader Edi Rama. The two leaders did not meet.

The deal sets an October 20 deadline to scrap the temporary voter register. The opposition feared a "phantom" army of 130,000 voters could theoretically cast ballots in both their old and new residence areas and tip the scales of the election.

Berisha, who is himself listed in the temporary register, blamed the Socialists for the register's flaws and said his party did not want to deny anybody the right to vote.

Albania has yet to hold an election that is judged to be free and fair, one of the key conditions for its European Union and NATO entry. Last year's general election was assessed as partly free and fair.

The agreed formula focuses on adding new members to the Central Election Commission, the public television board and the media watchdog council, to accommodate the opposition demands.

The two sides had been in a standoff since July, raising the spectre of new upheaval in Albania just as the West is trying to settle the future of the neighbouring U.N.-run Serbian province of Kosovo.

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